If one went into a screening of Mounia Akl's Costa Brava, Lebanon not knowing who the filmmaker was, it would be easy to imagine this is a seasoned auteur, with loads of cinematic experience under their belt. However, it actually turns out that this is Akl's first feature, after her award-winning and much adored 2016 short Submarine.
Her quiet confidence as a filmmaker is what makes Costa Brava, Lebanon such a beautiful, soulful and important watch. At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is eliminating the checks and balances in place for the protection of our environment, Akl feels much like a visionary -- a cinematic prophet showing us a hologram-like view of our own future here on earth.
In her story, which Akl co-wrote with Clara Roquet, the Badri family have run away from the chaos and grime of Beirut in favour of the green utopian oasis of the mountains of Lebanon. They are a small family of four, made up of dad Walid (Saleh Bakri), mom Souraya (Nadine Labaki), and daughters Tala (Nadia Charbel), the elder, and Rim (played by twins Ceana and Geana Restom). Together, they have built a simple sanctuary, one that fits their natural lifestyle and minimalistic needs, but it is hardly a lavish estate that they inhabit. Just a self-sufficient property that allows for the one human right we should all be able to claim: dignity. Walid is a gentle dad with an undercurrent of stubborn strength, Souraya shows glimpses of a past as a rockstar and activist, one that we can tell she sometimes misses, but the family as a whole seems well adjusted. Happy -- if that word should ever be used when referring to human beings.
One day, an overzealous politician with a typical political flair for corruption (it is erroneous here to single out Lebanon as a country of corruption, because we are experiencing it more and more everywhere, from first to third world countries) decides to build a "recycling" plant, read a garbage dump, next door to the Badris. And that's where their nightmare begins.
Within the discomfort created by this infringement from the government on their most basic rights -- peace, hygiene and quiet -- the family begins to unravel, as we all tend to do under pressure. Relationships are known to follow peaks and valleys, with crisis undeniably influencing our mood and ability to respect each other's needs. In good times, relationships are easy. It is in the worst of times that we get to figure out who our personal allies are.
Akl moves through the family's crisis and the environmental disaster at their doorstep with subtlety and sensitivity. There is no showing off her talent with scenes of grandeur or hyperbolic emotions. Even when she beckons the aid of CGI for a magical scene of hope towards the end... She is, after all, the kind of filmmaker who can convince two mega stars like Labaki and Bakri to act in her film, because, well she asked. And, as a personal aside, she is also a fascinating interview and our chat in Venice provided a wonderful gateway into her thinking process. Her writing reflects the insight and depth of her persona, which is what ends up making Costa Brava, Lebanon a quiet masterpiece.
In the film, we watch this seemingly perfect family living in an idyllic location transform before our very eyes. But not into something ugly and destructive, as the environment around them mutates, rather into a group of people whose vulnerability and concerns we can easily connect with and understand. In those moments, when we identify with one or another of the Badris, as a mirror held up to our own fears and doubts, the film becomes a true wonder. It changes from a cinematic oeuvre to a perfect work of art, one that touches us deeply.
It may be interesting to note that the film began for the filmmaker as a script about a dystopian future, but with time and the way her home country has been disintegrating of late, the story turned into an all too current tale on the power of self destruction, particularly at the hands of those who are in charge of our well being.
In her director's notes, Akl mentions the process: "I started observing the tools that we arm ourselves with to fight trauma, often reverting to impulse or denial. This dichotomy is what Lebanon is, and who I have become. It has brought our society to a place of absurdity and has driven people to reinvent and sterilize their homes to protect themselves from a dystopian reality that is too painful to face. It has also armed us with limitless imagination, humor and a visceral experience of life."
Fascinating as well is that Costa Brava, Lebanon was filmed during the pandemic, as is apparent from this behind the scenes shot above of the director and her star on set. While the issue at hand in 2020 for the world was Covid-19, Lebanon struggled with the virus of course but also political corruption and the explosion in the port of Beirut which displaced, in some way or another, most residents of the city, including both Akl and Labaki. Not to mention a financial crisis which would cripple the country. And yet a beautiful, touching film about humanity was made, one which premiered in Venice in September of 2021 and went on to play around the world, to both audiences and critical acclaim, winning lots of awards in between.
So will the Badri family survive under these dire living circumstances imposed by the landfill at their doorstep? Will Lebanon find a way to come out of its current crisis and be once again the beautiful land we know it to be? While these are questions that may or may not be answered in the film, or even in our minds, Costa Brava, Lebanon provides us with a roadmap to navigate the intricacies of policies, governments but most importantly, our personal relationship with both our loved ones and the environment around us.
Costa Brava, Lebanon is distributed in the U.S. by Kino Lorber and opens in NY on July 15 at the Quad Cinema, expanding to the Laemmle Monica in LA and other markets on July 22.